"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

JB in the News--

Jack 'n John: An "Ethical" Blogger Says Mandela, Brown were Terrorists

Jack Marshall is an ethicist, lawyer, president of his own ethics organization, an editor, and theater professional.  He is also the blogger of Ethics Alarms, which is intended to highlight what he calls "the feelings in your gut, the twinges in your conscience, and the sense of caution in your brain when situations involving choices of right and wrong are beginning to develop, fast approaching, or unavoidable."
Jack is Alarmed

With the news of the death of South African hero, Nelson Mandela, apparently one of those alarms went off in Jack's gut.  His conscience began to twinge and he became extremely cautious. This resulted in his latest blog post, entitled, "Nelson Mandela, John Brown, and the Perils of Hagiography."  What set off Jack's inner ethics alarm is the pouring forth of so much selective praise of the late Mandela on the part of the media, and the criticism of those who have dared to question or even qualify the late South African leader's political identity.  Jack points out that a former TIME magazine journalist, Richard Stengel, drew fire, along with other of Mandela's critics, from the media.  Stengel reportedly had referred to Mandela as "a pragmatic politician,” not a visionary, philosopher, or a saint. Stengel concluded that Mandela had used violence and therefore should not be seen as a Santa Claus figure, since he was a revolutionist.

While these remarks are true enough, they will be understood differently, depending on which side of history one is standing.  Jack Marshall is apparently standing on the other side of history. Jack provides a series of quotations from Mandela in which he says other things that might offend the assumed orthodoxy of the west: Israel should stop oppressing the Palestinians and give back all the land they took in the 1967 war; the U.S. has a history of unspeakable atrocities; Pres. G. W. Bush's war was a quest for Iraqi oil; and other essentially valid points that go against the grain of the contemporary west. Clearly, Jack Marshall's inner alarm went off because he disagrees with Mandela's political assessments. In other words, doing ethics in his comfortable existence as a successful former lawyer, and a white man living in the wealthy subculture of the Washington beltway, he just doesn't see things the same as do the victims of apartheid and oppression.  
No Jack, Mandela wasn't
Santa Claus

This is no surprise.

It's also no surprise that he has a very different view of John Brown in the history of the United States.  In fact, it's notable that in seeking to diffuse Mandela's media glorifiers (he calls them "hagiographers"), Jack pulls out the old canard of John Brown the terrorist. Here is the specific quote:
Ah yes, the old “he’s a freedom fighter, not a terrorist” trick. This exact sentence has been uttered in support of, among others, Yassir Arafat, the Irish Republican Army, and Osama Bin Laden. In this country, the rhetorical device’s best application best fits fanatic abolitionist John Brown, whose objective was as equally unassailable as Mandela’s: the elimination of slavery. It is not hard to imagine a parallel history where Brown goes to prison before the Civil War, only to be released after U.S. slavery has been vanquished,and  to be universally praise as a visionary, a martyr and a hero. But Brown’s tactics killed innocent civilians, and so did Mandela’s. While in prison, he refused to expressly reject violence as a means of overthrowing the Botha regime.
In one fell swoop, Jack thus bunches Brown with Mandela, Arafat, the IRA, and even Osama Bin Laden.  From a purely historical point of view, it seems that such a sloppy, ham-handed treatment of history is itself quite unethical.  But after all, the issue here is not really truth in history, but what sets off Jack's inner alarm.

What bothers Jack more,
slavery or anti-slavery
violence?
I will not presume to defend everything that Arafat and others did in the course of their revolutionary actions.  Certainly, there is no sympathy here for the late Bin Laden, who truly was a terrorist.  The question is whether it is historically ethical for Jack to brand John Brown as a terrorist simply because his "tactics killed innocent victims"--as if this accurately portrays the record.  I will not go into an extensive discussion of either the Kansas territory or Harper's Ferry episodes; but I will say that there is sufficient evidence that in neither case did Brown intentionally intend to harm "innocent victims."  In fact, his "victims" in Kansas were not innocent; and the killings at Harper's Ferry were not premeditated; and most of the Virginia "victims" died in combat, while two died as a result of sheer recklessness.  In legal terms, there was nothing terroristic about Brown's actions, and if Jack does not believe me, he should consider the arguments of the eminent lawyer and historian, Paul Finkelman (who is hardly as warm an admirer of Brown as yours truly).  After looking at both the Kansas and Virginia episodes, Finkelman concludes: "If slaves could fight for their liberty," Finkelman concludes, "then surely a white man like Brown was not morally wrong for joining in the fight against bondage."1  Of course, this is precisely the question for Jack the Blogger--was it right for enslaved blacks and oppressed Africans to rise up violently against oppression, particularly when all recourse to legal appeal, reform, or peaceful means had been exhausted?  If Jack answers yes, then he is contradicting himself.  If he answers no, then his ethics must be dismissed as only a tool of white supremacy.

Indeed, it is always telling that "ethical" men like Jack Marshall are so big on the enemy having to "reject violence."  The hypocrisy in this outlook is grandiose, amounting to historical hubris. In Jack's evident view of history, white rule in North America and other parts of the world was apparently entitled to entail systems of racial segregation, slavery, apartheid, and militarism that amount to state terror.  This is not a "trick."  It is hardly a sleight-of-hand to say that enslaved blacks could rightly see slave revolts as wars of freedom.  Certainly, as Brown understood, chattel slavery was both terrorism and war declared upon an innocent and vulnerable population.  Yet white people's domination apparently does not set off any alarms in the gut of men like Jack Marshall, not even in the historical sense.  No, the only ethics alarms that go off for Jack Marshall pertain to the use of violence by people of a certain color and ideology.   Slavery might have been bad, but it just wasn't right to use violence to overthrow it!  I wonder if Jack would be so smug and condemnatory of the "Founding Fathers," who used violence and terrorism against the British.
It's plain enough.  Jack Marshall is not really bothered by "violence."  He's bothered by the violence of the "enemy"--even when the "enemy" is right.

      1Paul Finkelman, "John Brown: America's First Terrorist?" Prologue 23:11 (Spring 2011) [National Archives, Wash. D.C.].

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